CHANDLER, Ariz. — Bashas' customers expect to find a monthly menu of “Chef's Entrees” on the retailer's website. If the chain's a day late posting the menu, the company hears about it.
The interest in the menus is just one indication of the program's success. Since rolling it out in 2002, Bashas' has seen a sixfold increase in unit volume.
“It's a real draw for Bashas',” said company spokesman Rob Johnson.
Back in 2003, when Chef's Entrees was relatively new, the Bashas' chain sold more than 1,200 of the fully prepared meals each week. The meals generally consist of an entree, with a starchy side dish and a serving of fresh vegetables.
Everything from coconut-crusted chicken to French pork loin and grilled salmon with mango salsa is prepared in individual store kitchens by the store associates. Every store has a recipe booklet, containing step-by-step directions and color photos of the prepared entrees for associates to follow. Most of the 72 stores offer one meal per day, though about 20 larger-volume stores offer shoppers a choice of two daily. The meals, which retail for $6.99, are only available between 4 and 8 p.m.
Now, with four years of cooking for the masses under its belt, the retailer moves about 7,500 meals in a week's time. Having the experience gives the retailer a leg up on other larger chains in the region that haven't made a major commitment to food service. Bashas' competes with Fry's, a division of the Kroger Co., and Safeway, among other chains in the market.
“It gives us a point of differentiation,” said Scott Ruth, who joined Bashas' last year as vice president of food service. “It gives us a niche in the marketplace. We do believe in our hot foods program. It's something we want to continue to grow. More importantly, it's a convenience for our customers.”
Ruth and Johnson give Celia Sablone, the corporate chef for the chain, much of the credit for making the program a winner. Sablone is the creative force behind the menus. She develops the recipes and keeps the rotation of meals fresh and interesting. Sablone, known as “Chef Celia” within the company, has been in charge of recipe development since the program's onset. Over the past year, she's become a familiar face on a local TV station, on which Sablone has promoted Bashas' holiday dinners, and was featured in an entertaining segment. (Through an agreement, Bashas' pays a sum of money in return for regular exposure on the air. The retailer uses the air time to highlight the company's experts.)
Sablone's main challenge is developing recipes that are enticing to shoppers but easy to prepare consistently by store associates. Striking a balance between traditional favorites and brand new dishes is key.
“It's not just fried chicken and mashed potatoes,” Johnson said. “It's been Celia's mission to find more and more recipes that are easy enough for the delis to make en masse but exotic enough to be intriguing to our customers.”
One thing shoppers can count on is fish on Fridays. According to the menu for December, the retailer offered customers a choice of fish and chips or another meal anchored by seafood each Friday.
Sablone brought professional cooking experience to the job. Previously, she worked at the company's upscale AJ's Fine Foods division, but before that, Sablone operated Italian-style restaurants in the area.
“She has a great reputation in the area and the state,” Ruth said.
When he's asked to identify other keys to the program's success, Ruth pointed to the company's commitment to fresh, high-quality ingredients and variety of product. The retailer only uses fresh — not frozen — vegetables, he said. Bashas' also keeps an eye on costs. The retailer sources all ingredients through the company's own warehouses, without using an outside distributor. The company orders ingredients for all the stores, rather than having individual stores place separate orders.
“We manage our own ingredients,” Ruth said. “It helps with the cost of goods rather than having a distributor. It's a profitable part of the department. Some items are more profitable than others.”
Officials at Bashas' have had years to fine-tune the program to the point where it runs pretty smoothly.